“I love the smell of Cape Town in the morning.” I haven’t even seen Apocalypse Now, but I know the line well enough to misquote it. I spoke gruffly, with a dodgy American accent. I couldn’t help myself – I was in a Huey, the iconic combat air vehicle and star of so many films, and I was revved up for a Combat Mission flight. The rotors were settling into steady whump whump overhead, and the sound system was playing The Doors’ This is the End.
Those were the only doors of course. The Huey is instantly recognisable for its lack of them, a fact which lends a huge boost of extra naughty thrill for a passenger. My nerves, already stretched with anticipation, had been teased further by the pilot, Lee, who instructed that all bags and sunglasses, loose scarves etc. must be left in a locker because if anything flew out of the plane and into the tail rotor, it could bring the whole ‘copter down. Yikes.
There are many fantastic sightseeing tours over Cape Town but to travel in a Huey offers something a bit different. Not least is there fantastic visibility through the gaping holes in the sides, but there is the sensation of the sky flowing around you and the relentlessness of the massive noise of the rotors which create a sonic boom on each rotation. The noise is an integral part of the experience. Not for nothing is the Huey known as the Harley Davidson of the sky… and we were about to put it through its paces.
We flew almost directly north of Table Mountain, up over the curve of Table Bay, leaving the city bowl behind us – a blotch at the bottom of the vast mountain. The surfers paddling out below us gazed up in awe. I was watching our shadow flit across the waves when an unmistakeable outline appeared – whales. We swooped down low and around them, one after the other – six or seven in total of the slow, silent behemoths of the deep. What a sight.
To have spotted whales from a helicopter would have been exciting enough, but the last of the stretches of houses and golf courses lining the beach were petering out and we were on a mission. We headed in a little from the beach and Lee took us right down, skimming the top of the long wild grass, heading straight for a hill. It was just like the films – that classic scene in every film featuring a helicopter – where it bursts out unexpectedly from behind a grassy knoll or a building or a sand dune… that was us! And Status Quo was blasting “You’re in the Army Now…”
As we skimmed and dived and pirouetted over the waving grasses, I was amazed at the grace of the machine. How extraordinary that something built solely for the purposes of war could be so elegant and precise… though maybe that’s exactly the point. Even the noise of the rotors seemed a part of the dance, with crescendos and diminuendos rising and falling with the speed and angle of the machine. Only with any sudden lift did I feel that stomach lurching sensation, but nothing like the battering the fairground Waltzer gives. Sometimes the Huey seemed to be almost on its side but, Wall-of-Death-like we were glued to our seats, gaping stupidly as the ground came up to meet us. Time after time we looped and curved and rolled, often just a couple of feet from the ground, and the view changed from blue sky to blue sea to green grass with only Table Mountain in the background as a steady reference point. Awesome.
Ah, the things I put myself through for you readers. Well, as Hawkeye once said in that other Vietnam film, M*A*S*H, “It was the least I could do. I always do the least I can do.”